With SP1, Microsoft plans to ditch the Vista "kill switch"

With SP1, Microsoft plans to ditch the Vista "kill switch"

Summary: When SP1 ships sometime in early 2008, it will strip away one of Vista's most annoying features and remove one of the most persistent objections to Vista's adoption. Microsoft plans to remove the infamous "kill switch" from Windows Vista when SP1 is installed, restoring WGA to its original role as a series of persistent but nonlethal notifications. I've got the details of Redmond's dramatic reversal in policy.


The case for Windows Vista Service Pack 1 just got a lot stronger.

When SP1 ships sometime in early 2008, it will strip away one of Vista's most annoying features and remove one of the most persistent objections to Vista's adoption. Microsoft plans to remove the infamous "kill switch" from Windows Vista when SP1 is installed, restoring the Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) program to its original role as a series of persistent but nonlethal notifications. Vista activationIn a confidential briefing ahead of today's formal announcement, WGA senior product manager Alex Kochis laid out the changes for a handful of reporters and analysts. One of the bullet points on Kochis's PowerPoint deck was especially blunt:

"Based on customer feedback, we will not reduce user functionality on systems determined to be non-genuine"

Those italics are in the original, suggesting that the WGA team has finally realized that they need to react forcefully to a year of embarrassing WGA glitches, server outages, and nonstop customer complaints. Beginning with the final, released version of SP1 next year (the modified WGA code will be missing from all but the most exclusive of SP1 betas), Microsoft plans to roll back WGA to its original format as a series of notifications that nudge and nag but don't block access to any installed programs or Windows features.

The Softies responsible for WGA, including Kochis, wince when they hear the term "kill switch." They prefer a more benign description, reduced functionality mode, when talking about the final step in Vista's progression of penalties for any system that fails to pass its online test of activation status. But as I noted last year:

Microsoft denies that this is a "kill switch" for Windows Vista, even giving it a separate question and answer in its mock interview announcing the program. Technically, they're right, I suppose. Switching a PC into a degraded functionality where all you can do is browse the Internet doesn't kill it; but it's arguably a near-death experience.

In current retail copies of Vista, there are dire consequences for failing to activate a retail copy of Windows Vista after 30 days or ignoring the three-day "grace period" when a system falls out of tolerance after too many hardware changes. When the timer runs out, the desktop turns black and its icons disappear and the Start menu vanishes. You can copy your personal data files, but you can't open them, and you're granted the right to use Internet Explorer for one hour before being forcibly logged off.

In its post-SP1 incarnation, the penalty for ignoring these activation notices is ... more activation notices. The most annoying change is an Activate Now dialog box that forces you to wait 15 seconds before the matching Activate Later option is available to be clicked.

With SP1 installed, a Vista system that fails validation - one that Microsoft calls "non genuine" - will continue to work exactly as before. All programs will run, the Aero interface will keep its transparent window borders and whizzy effects, ReadyBoost will remain enabled, and there won't be any time limit on your user session. If your copy of Windows is flagged as "non genuine," you'll have to deal with some minor annoyances: the desktop background is a solid black (the better to see the "non genuine" label in the desktop's lower right corner). If you change your desktop to something less stark, a scheduled task will paint it black again one hour later, and you'll see a small "Activate Now" alert in the same location, which you're free to ignore.

Restrictions on Windows Update will remain unchanged. If your system is flagged as "non genuine," you'll still get critical security updates, but you'll need to pass a WGA validation check before you can download optional updates and new, signed drivers.

But that's it. Under the new system, you can run Vista indefinitely as long as you're willing to put up with a few nag screens.

The new SP1-era WGA code is designed to detect two of the most common Vista cracks: one tries to fool Vista into thinking that it's an OEM copy with a matching OEM BIOS; the other rolls the mandatory activation checks ahead to 2099 or some other ridiculously distant date. Both the OEM BIOS and Clock Timer hacks are detected when SP1 is installed; the goal, says Microsoft, is to alert innocent or naive consumers who've been ripped off by crooked system makers or who purchased hacked Vista copies from shady online vendors. But even those known fakes will run indefinitely if you choose to ignore the messages.

Microsoft says the new notifications will lead to online "get legal" offers comparable to those for XP:

  • Windows Vista Home Basic, $89
  • Windows Vista Home Premium, $119
  • Windows Vista Business, $145
  • Windows Vista Ultimate, $199

Ironically, those prices are significantly better than the retail prices that you'll find from legitimate Windows resellers. In theory, at least, a consumer could install a copy of Windows Vista without a product key, refuse to activate the system for 30 days, and then purchase a perfectly legal license at a discount using Microsoft's online offer.

This drastic change in Microsoft's WGA system is only the latest in series of attempts to smooth WGA's rough edges. In August, Kochis apologized on Microsoft's WGA blog for an outage that incorrectly flagged thousands of customers' systems as "non genuine." In October, Microsoft removed the WGA validation requirement from IE7 downloads. Two weeks ago, on November 20, Kochis promised to "build more trust in WGA" by improving its back-end systems, its response times, and its customer support.

Getting rid of the "kill switch" is a much better way to build that trust.

Topics: Microsoft, Operating Systems, Software, Windows

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • hmm... a theory on this and market penetration..

    could it be that the adoption by the masses of this 1-year old OS is so sluggish, that in hopes of furthering market penetration, Microsoft has decided to relax their rigid grasp on authentic software. I suppose one can make great claims about market saturation of a new OS this way, even when many may be illegal copies. Or maybe this is to encourage illegal software use to obtain their penetration goals for Vista. At least that would be my conspiracy theory (which just might, in the end, be true).
    • Cracking ^Vista is so easy

      is not even a issue for anyone who use a non-genuine version of vista (any flavor). WGA only punish legal users and will continue to ONLY punish legal users. When MS saw is browser share drop, it drop WGA on IE7. now MS realise that Vista is lot harder to push on consumers... to preven defection to Mac OS or Linux (or back to XP) it just make the OS even easier to hack to be make sure users will adpot it. then when most user are using it (paying user or not) it will find more twisted way to de-activate non-genuine Vista.

      Pirates have put MS when it is right now and MS is again relying on them to make sure Vista become as widely used as any previous version of windows.

      The winner? Pirates or course, the loosers... Paying comsumers who pay 100's of dollards for a OS that should be sold for 50$ to 75$ (the real solution to piracy, LOWER PRICE). MS invested millions of $$$ for WGA and it is 100% totally not working at preventing piracy... now is that money was used to LOWER PRICE.....
      • Pricing is tricky for any company ...

        Saying that Windows is "too expensive" and it being so are two different things. Companies price products at levels that "the market will bear" - meaning that companies need to balance sales volume against costs of development and their return on investment.

        If they pick a price-point that is too high, they don't sell enough copies to pay their development costs in a timely fashion -- and they piss of existing customers, which is really the bigger issue.

        If they pick too low a price-point, they may sell lots more copies but still not be able to recover the development costs in a timely fashion.

        Prices that are too low or too high can kill a company -- any company. IMHO, Linux would be more widely adopted if it weren't FREE!
        M Wagner
        • I disagree . . .

          I think that the real reason behind Linux adoption is that you can't readily buy a PC with it pre-installed. If it were on the shelves at the local stores (where people still buy a computer most of the time), you'd see a much higher rate of adoption. Most people simply aren't going to Download OR install an OS on their own.

          And the other gentleman is right. MS wouldn't have half the problems they do if they would just lower the retail price-point. You notice that the Mac OS (I know it only installs on Macs) is, what a little over $100? Even with a locked-in audience, Apple keeps the price relatively low.
          • Availibility of Linux desktops

            My understanding is that WalMart has been selling a low-cost Linux desktop system faster than they can keep them on the shelfs. Maybe things are changing.
          • Which Linux Distrobution

            is being sold in the US at WalMart?
          • gOS

            It's gOS, a lightweight distribution available here: <a href = "http://www.thinkgos.com/">http://www.thinkgos.com/</a>
          • Wrong assumption!

            Mos PCs are bought online and not in retail stores. The split is about 60/40. Furthermore you can buy Linux at retail in Walmarts. There is no coorelation between price and stealing. People steal small things and people steal large things. Neither is there a relationship between ability to pay and stealing. Winona Ryder and Brittany Spears are proof of that. The price for a System Builder version of Home Premium is about the same price as a single user version of OSX. Apple has released three updates in the time it took Microsoft to go from XP to Vista. If the Apple user kept current that would have been 3 times $129 which is far more expensive then Microsoft. none of your arguements are valid.
          • As with Windows.....

            So also, most Mac users get a new OS with a new Mac. Apple is a hardware business.
            They make great software to sell excellent hardware. Together these make a system
            that "just works"(TM).
          • Not according to many of their users.

            Leapord has landed with a resounding thud! iMacs that freeze at the log in screen and Data loss during moves are just two of the complaints.
          • Different Kinds Of Problems

            iMac issues with Leopard now appear to be issues with systems not meeting hardware requirements for the new OS.

            Data loss during file moves is a clear design flaw. That can be easily fixed.

            But the deliberate use of flawed unreliable validation installed as spyware without customer consent, forced "stealth" updates without customer consent, restricted licensing, and kill switches in XP, Office, and Vista, are all the result of a consistent business strategy that reflects a fundamental difference in attitudes towards customers that no amount of hardware upgrades or patching can ever fix.
          • been to a WalMart lately?

            They have Linux PCs on their shelves. What now?
          • re: been to a WalMart lately?

            That's not true...the gOS machines are all sold out!!!
          • But how many people have

            re-installed their copy of 98, 2000, XP onto the machine?

            I know of two people who have done just that.
          • I disagree

            The real reason is nobody knows of linux. It's not advertised or presented as a legitmate product. <br>
            I'm sure you are right, as was proved at Walmart, when they sold out of the 200.00 Linux boxes. But I have a feeling those were either Linux people in search of a cheap box or others who had no idea it was not Windows. In the case of the latter, it's hard to know how that's working out w/o more data. <br>
            In any case, i wonder why nobody has come out with big money to start a Linux distribution channel? Bigtime. Answer is probably they can't do it because it's simply not a retail OS. <br>
            I don't think retail is interested in not making money from the OS for the most part, but that's a guess. <br>
            Need a commercial version, marketing, the whole bit. Even if they have to close it up due to OSS people opposing the move i guess. they want mass adoption but the way it's setup now, how could that be fair to the supported distros that essentially all work together as one huge team in the end? How is Samba going to survive if some of the bigger names go commercial and start getting all the programming effort shifting to their new projects etc. I don't know. I just seems like FREE doesn't work in the marketplace and I agree with Marc, as i said in another post and have supported the idea for a long time. <br>
            Someone has to break out of the pack and sell their OS commercially. They want adoption, they have to play the rules of the game.
          • Many factors for Linux low-adoption...

            First, I wouldn't say that Linux is doing that terribly. I recall reading at one point that MacOS has a lower desktop market share, although that may have changed.

            The reality is that there is no single reason for Linux's struggle to get market share. There are many, and here are some:

            1) Lack of popular applications: It is true that for any major Windows application, there is a Linux alternative, but in most cases the alternative simply isn't attractive enough to make people switch from what they're used to. For example, Open Office is arguably almost as good as MS Office, but it isn't better. So you're not just trying to get people do adopt a new OS, but you're also trying to get them to adopt a whole suite of new applications. If I'm using another *nix variant, say BSD, I might be more inclined to switch to Linux because at least I can still use the same application.

            2) Fewer choices: More software is written for Windows than Linux, mainly due to Window's dominance. So there's not much Linux can do about that until it becomes the dominant player. The only thing it can do is get more popular exclusive applications. This is a bit hard considering that the majority of software written for Linux is open-source, and a lot of it ends up getting ported to Windows anyway. I think the argument about Linux being free hurting its market share is partically correct, because nobody is making enough money from Linux alone to want to develop Linux-exclusive applications.

            3) The "Geek" Factor: The fact that Linux is viewed as a "geek OS" scares most average users away, no matter how user-friendly the developers try to make it (not that they've been terribly successful, but Windows is arguably less user-friendly in some ways).

            4) Apple has carved out a market niche for itself in "glamour computing" -- computers that are trendy and hip, for those that are more fashion-conscious and have money to spend. And the only reason Apple is able to pull that off is because they make the hardware themselves, and so by perfecting little details, they can make it appealing to people who want to feel good about themselves because they spent more money than the bloke who bought a boring PC. Windows doesn't even pretend to be hip, but it's practical. Linux is neither really, unless you're a geek or tech-savvy (see #3).

            5) Less support from hardware developers: While Linux drivers are more common than they used to be, they still lag behind Windows drivers, and often times, you can't utilize all the hardware features from Linux.

            6) Not good for gamers: There's a whole demographic down the drain. This largely has to do with #5 and the fact that Linux's resource management is not as flexible as it is in Windows, which makes it more difficult to squeeze performance out of the hardware as you can in Windows.

            7) Windows is more likely to be pre-installed on new computers, more people know how to provide tech support for Windows, etc.

            8) Piracy: Keeps Windows installed on computers of people who are too poor or too cheap to buy it.

            I'm sure there are many more reasons too, but the point is that it's not just one major reason that's keeping Linux down in the mainstream. Price is not enough of a reason for people to switch, because Windows may be expensive but not expensive enough. Gas is expensive, and people still drive cars.

            I'm not bashing Linux. I use it myself a lot. Just putting perspective.
          • We use OpenSUSE in the company

            now, because most serious business software is going Web 2.0 anyway. Our ERP system is fully Web 2.0. The previous Access and AS/400 systems are being migrated to a unified Web 2.0 ERP System (also Linux LAMP). We now only buy naked PC's and install OpenSUSE with OpenOffice.

            To your points:
            1. We have very few problems using OO and MSOffice 2300 in parallel. We are phasing MSOffice out completely in the next year. With MSOffice Pro you have to pay many $$ more than just for MS OS. All inclusive in OpenSUSE (and other distrobutions)!
            2. In business, there are few gamer apps needed. For a normal office environment Linux works perfectly for us.
            3. All MS users just want to have the Apps linked to the Desktop, and way they go. We even use a AS/400 client in Wine; works perfectly.
            4. I have an Apple Notebook at home. It is a Linux kernel and has most of the software on the other distributions. It is neat, fast and uses most MS software ported to Apple. HW is the only barrier, but it is compact and robust.
            5. Very few Notebooks do not have drivers. We have Dell Notebooks with OpenSUSE running also, with Compiz and finger print reader access also.
            6. Admittedly not a gamer's choice. But for this W200 or XP that comes with most bundeled PC's will suffice as a Win/Linux dual boot gamer PC. For serious stuff, use Linux - for playing arount use Win.
            7. That in a free market system smells like monopolizing. One of the big reasons why other OS's are coming up, because users cannot freely choose their products without OS anymore.
            8. We have decided to be completely legal, but the MS price was too high. I personally do not enjoy having to use illegitimate software at home; I learnt to use Linux. Now I am migrating my company as well. The 5% of nice to have software on MS in business are not necessary anyway. Alternatives become more and more common.

            I'm not bashing MS either, it is just a pain to legal users to fight the nags of DRM and MS efforts to stop piracy (their legitimate right!), that ends up causing lots of admin work if after updates the software needs new activation.

            Perspective is, serious business does not need MS anymore. OpenSUSE does it all. Gamers may keep the non-optional MS-WinOS software (that is in the price of the HW anyway) for games on a dual boot system, and have all other things on Linux.
          • Where Linux has the

            advantage is that it provides many developer tools for free. When you install a version of Linux, it allows you to select developer tools in the language of your choice. You can get free tools for Windows, but they are not provided with the OS. For programmers like me that work with expensive development packages the free tools are not much of an advantage. However, for students and kids that are interested in learning how to program, those free tools are attractive.
            Linux will gain an advantage if the next generation of programmers grow up learning to program on it instead of Windows. It's the programmers and developers that drive the innovation in software and this is the area Microsoft needs to secure if its going to maintain its edge.
            IMO Microsoft needs to do more to win over this next generation of programmers.
          • That's a stretch.

            Those who graduated 10 years ago were using Unix, which has pretty much the same tools, yet MS has made gains with those same programmers that started on Unix.

            I don't write for Windows, but I've used their IDE as well as several different IDEs for different languages on both windows and *nix, and there's no comparison. Visual studio is a [b]great[/b] IDE. Others are good, but nothing I've used is as good as VS.

            Bottom line is that developers don't drive what platform is used, users do...and most people don't use *nix. As a result, most software is developed for the platform those people use: Windows.
          • Users will use software

            that meets there needs and if cool software is developed they will follow. I develop in VS, I have developed using Borland's old Turbo C++ product. I agree VS is an excellent package especially if your using the enterprise edition, but VS sells for over $600. Yes, you can get a free copy and that is a plus in Microsoft's favor. But, I remember when you got GW-Basic and later QBasic with DOS. They were not show stoppers, but they created excitement in hobbyist and beginning programmers. If something similar was bundled with Windows, it would attract the same hobbyists. Many of the programmers today also got started programming the old hobbyist PCs. Those PCs like the TRS 80s, Commodores, Apple IIs were considered toys not business machines. IBM even miscalculated the importance of PCs. Today, Linux is considered a cool tool by many of the younger programmers. You don't hear the same enthusiasm for MS tools. In fact I see many of them disparaging VS and other MS tools.

            Let's face it most business decisions today are made by individuals who have used DOS and then later Windows when they were starting out. However, when our generation retires, it's not a guarantee that the next will be as tied to Windows. If Microsoft ignores this younger market, it could come back to haunt them just like IBM.